It's a little late in the day to extol the virtues of the Papermill Playhouse's production of "Hunchback of Notre Dame" which has its last performance on April 5, but since the show is being groomed for Broadway, it's relevant to point out that the production is simply magnificent. (The play premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego last fall before moving here.) Upon entering the Papermill, we took our seats in front row, center....generally the best in the house. However, there was concern because the entire stage now had a massive new floor temporarily built on top of it. The result of this was the "new" stage not only extending practically into our seats but also having the effect of "elevator shoes"....it was a good foot above where the normal stage rose. My concern was that everyone would have to crane their necks to see what was going on directly in front of them- and indeed some of those attending who were not very tall found it necessary to sit on their coats in an attempt to elevate themselves enough to see the action. Whatever grumbling may have occurred was subdued because of the sight that stood before our eyes: a massive, ingenious example of production design that ranked among the most impressive I had ever seen. Clearly, we knew this would be a memorable theatrical experience- and it was. The reaction became even greater when we first see Quasimodo, who is hanging on a rope attached to a set of descending giant bells. The effect is breathtaking and the reason for the new stage floor would become apparent, as massive edifices as wheeled in and out of scenes throughout the production. The staggering weight would have crushed the existing stage floor.
The new show, under the inspired direction of Scott Schwartz,is a unique production that combines the key elements of Victor Hugo's classic 1831 novel with songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz that appeared in Disney's animated film version and, in the process, reworks the original German 1999 production of this musical. (Peter Parnell wrote the book for the new version.) It should be mentioned that, although this production boasts memorable songs from the Disney film, this is not a feel-good experience and kids may well walk away more upset than entertained. (It notably is not recommended for kids under age 12, per a disclaimer on the show's advertising.) That's because Hugo's book presents us with one of the most tragic protagonists in literary history: Quasimodo, the deformed illegitimate son of a Frenchman of good standing and a Gypsy girl, both of whom die shortly after the baby is born. The infant's uncle is Dom Claude Frollo, the top priest at Notre Dame cathedral. He is appalled by the disfigurement of the child that he has taken into his care, but he is also ashamed. He raises the boy within the confines of the bell tower, where young Quasimodo receives an education but has been completely isolated from the bustling city of Paris, which he can only observe from the tower. His sole function is to chime the enormous bells on schedule. One day, Quasimodo slips into the streets to experience the annual "Feast of Fools", a one-day event during which the city's most undesirable elements are allowed to run rampant and indulge themselves in any vices they desire. Quasimodo no sooner enters the crowds than he becomes the object of cruel mockery and torture for the amusement of others. He is rescued by the one person who shows him an act of kindness: the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda. She escorts him back to the cathedral where she is initially met with disdain by Frollo, who informs her that gypsies are not welcome in the church. However, he can't help but be smitten by her beauty and changes his tune when he makes a blatant attempt to seduce her. She rebuffs him and the humiliated Frollo plots to have her arrested on charges of witchcraft. Esmeralda goes into hiding and receives protection from Frollo's own Captain of the Guards, Phoebus de Martin, who becomes a wanted man himself because of his desire to save Esmeralda from the clutches of Frollo. In the course of the story, Quasimodo proves himself to be smarter than anyone had anticipated...and a man of great courage, as well. He not so secretly loves Esmeralda but realizes their relationship can only be platonic. Yet, he risks his life to in attempt to save her from the death sentence Frollo has condemned her to suffer.
As you might surmise from the synopsis, "Hunchback" is a morbid affair. Yet, it is a stirring production that doesn't need artificial sentiment to rouse the emotions of the audience. The cast is simply brilliant. Ciara Renee is radiant as Esmeralda and Andrew Samonsky makes for a dashing hero as her protector/lover. However, the two most impressive performances are given by Michael Arden and Patrick Page as Quasimodo and Frollo, respectively. Arden is simply amazing. He walks on stage as a handsome young actor and in front of our eyes turns himself into the afflicted Quasimodo without the benefit of a mask or makeup. He achieves this by contorting his face and maintaining that effect through the entire play (in addition to jumping on bell ropes and performing acts of derring-do"). Page is also highly impressive, playing a man decades older than his actual age and possessed of a voice that is truly a thing of beauty. There are at least thirty other actors and extras, making this the largest cast I've seen in a stage production in many years. If there is a criticism of this ambitious show, it's that there isn't a single standout song. They are all good, but none of them are great. Most are designed to advance the drama as opposed to having audiences hum them while exiting the theater.
The Papermill Playhouse is arguably the most acclaimed regional theater in the nation. This production of "Hunchback" proves why. My bet is that this production will find a home on Broadway. When it does, make sure you catch it.
(For more about the history of this musical, click here)